20 December 2013

Getting Cozy

by R.T. Lawton


Winter is just starting, and baby, it's cold outside. Now is a good time to cozy up to a crackling fireplace with a hot toddy in hand and a well-written book. Which leads me to a confession. I don't normally read cosy mysteries, they just aren't my first choice of reading material. However, when I like the way an author talks, I tend to buy their book, and if I like that one, then I go back for more.

Enter Kathleen Taylor. We met at a writers conference where she made a very interesting presentation. I bought a book and went back for four more. We talked. She personalized the books. Turned out we knew people in common through her day job and mine. She had worked in the Redfield Mental Hospital and I knew one of her fellow workers from when he and I were in the same motorcycle gang.

I'm going to say she wrote cosies, but in this day of cross genres and blurring of the lines, I will defer to Wikipedia for a definition of cozy. Feel free to argue otherwise. Here's my paraphrasing.

Cosies

Cosy (also spelled cozy) mysteries are a subgenre of crime fiction in which sex and violence are downplayed or treated humorously, and the crime and detection take place in a small, socially intimate community. The detectives are nearly always amateurs and frequently women, who are free to eavesdrop, gather clues, and use their native intelligence and intuitive "feel" for the social dynamics of the community to solve the crime.

The murderers are typically neither psychopaths nor serial killers, and once unmasked, are usually taken into custody without violence. They are generally members of the community where the murder occurs, able to hide in plain sight, and their motives– greed, jealousy, revenge– are often rooted in events years, or even generations, old.

The supporting characters are often very broadly drawn and used in comic relief. The accumulation of such characters in long-running cosy mystery series frequently creates a stock company of eccentrics, among whom the detective stands out as the most (perhaps only) truly sane person.

On to the Series and Characters

The community is Delphi, South Dakota, one of those places well off the Interstate, yet the long distance bus lines still stop here to deliver and take on travelers. If you have ever paused in one of these small towns long enough to buy gas or grab a so-called home-cooked meal at the local cafe, then you will instantly recognize the community of Delphi.

Tony Bauer is our waitress in the town's only cafe. She is a 40-something year old widow, insecure, somewhat exceeding the surgeon general's weight guidelines and is having an affair with the local feed and seed owner whom she had a crush on in high school. Her not so easy life keeps getting complicated when friends and relatives continue to involve her in community activities.

In her first book, Funeral Food, (originally titled The Missionary Position, but the editors thought that title too racy), Tory's name and address has appeared as one of the Unchurched on a list of the Plains States Unsaved. When Winston, a young Mormon missionary, shows up at the cafe looking for potential converts, Del, a fellow waitress who is Tory's cousin-in-law, makes passes at him even though her current boyfriend is a local deputy sheriff with a hot temper. Several days later, Tory discovers Winston's corpse in the cafe's mop closet, which dumps her into a crockpot of lethal, long-simmering small town secrets. If Tory's not careful, she could end up in the missionary's position: flat-out, stone-cold dead.

Sex and Salmonella sends Tory to a neighboring town to check out a carnival to make sure it doesn't have any problems which will reflect back on her cousin Junior Deibert. Junior, the strait-laced wife of Delphi's Lutheran minister, made arrangements for the carnival to come to Delphi, but then began hearing rumors. Unfortunately, Junior has eaten an ill-prepared chicken and come down with food poisoning, so she talks Tory into going in her place. When the carnival does show up in Delphi as scheduled, it's Tory who discovers the body in the Evil Hall of Mirrors side show.

In the next three books, actually four because I recently found there's a sixth novel in the series, the deceased keep showing up at inopportune times, but always in an interesting way which ties back to the small town and its past.

Samples of the Writing

With all due respect, Robert Fulghum got it wrong--kindergarten is not where life's most important lessons are learned. Sharing and napping and neatness are all well and good, but the sexless elementary school environment does nothing to prepare you for the hormonal whammy that awaits. With the possible exception of how to handle an IRS audit, everything you really need to know about the world of grown-ups, you learned in high school.
   *          *          *          *          *          * Lying is something I try to avoid, but snooping is another matter entirely. Delphi citizens pride themselves on knowing as much about each other as we possibly can, and that knowledge is not always honorably obtained.
   *          *          *          *           *          * I have a fair amount of practice in the willing suspension of disbelief. I was a book-a-day reader from the time I figured out that it was the black marks on the printed page, and not the spaces in between, that mattered. I often believe six impossible things before breakfast. And when Nick was still alive, I worked on believing even more impossible things after supper, especially when he'd amble in six or seven hours late with a cockamamie story about a flat tire.

Finally

Kathleen's most recent novel, The Nut Hut, is not part of the Tory Bauer series. From the sample pages I read, it looks like the story's background came from her days working inside the mental hospital. Guess I'll be forking out some cash soon to read the rest of the book.

Merry Christmas to all, and stay warm and cozy.

19 December 2013

The Bubble Reputation

by Eve Fisher

I've been re-reading Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall" and "Bring Up the Bodies" because I want to, because I love her writing style, and because I'm really looking forward to the third volume.  But it's made me think about reputation and how it changes over time.

There was a time when Teddy Roosevelt was that madman only one heartbeat away from the presidency - now he's Theodore Rex.  In his own time, Harry Truman was considered an average numbskull - if not downright impeachable, especially for his opposition to General Macarthur and Big Mac's idea of bombing China - but after Watergate, Merle Miller's transcripts of Harry's "Plain Speaking" became a best-seller, and his salty speech and down home ways proved his integrity in a corrupt world.  Every American reader of "Life" Magazine from the 1920s through the early 40s knew that General Chiang Kai-Shek was democracy's one great hope in China; but after WWII, with China gone Communist, his brutal takeover in Taiwan, and his constant demands for money (and nukes), he became widely known as "General Cash-My-Check."
File:Chiang Kai Shek and wife with Lieutenant General Stilwell.jpg
Chiang Kai-Shek, his wife, Mei-ling Soong, and General Stillwell, who called CKS "Peanut" -
and not affectionately.
File:Cromwell,Thomas(1EEssex)01.jpg
Thomas Cromwell
File:Hans Holbein, the Younger - Sir Thomas More - Google Art Project.jpg
Thomas More
And there have been the various cases of rehabilitating the infamous.  Richard III - was he the evil, murderous, usurping crookback of Thomas More's little black pamphlet (although there's no proof that the sainted More wrote it) or the misunderstood, suffering, good king of Josephine Tey's "The Daughter of Time"? For that matter, was the martyred saint Thomas More the gentle, mild-mannered public servant of unshakeable integrity and equally unshakeable convictions of Robert Bolt's "A Man for All Seasons", or was he the hard-core persecutor of Protestants, advocating deceit, torture, execution and extermination for all "heretics" that both Foxe's "Book of Martyrs" and Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall" present?  And that, of course, leads to Thomas Cromwell, generally presented - until Mantel's work - as a villain:  unscrupulous, ambitious, jealous, greedy, predatory and ruthless.  Or was this the perfect way to make him the perfect foil for St. Thomas More?

Much of reputation depends on timing.  Histories aren't written in a vacuum, nor are plays, novels, movies, television shows.  There are reasons behind what is written.  Sometimes we know what they are; sometimes we don't.  Sometimes we're too close to know, and it will take later people to figure it out.

For example, there's an ancient historian named Plutarch, who wrote biographies and histories back around 100 CE:  "The Lives of the Noble Romans and the Noble Greeks", and "On Sparta."  They are major sources for historians about the ancient world - especially Sparta, which wasn't known for writing down much of anything.  There are only two problems with Plutarch's work:  his biographies were written to show the influence of character on lives and destinies - and he didn't believe people could change.  And "On Sparta" reeks of nostalgia for a society in which everyone was equal, honest, brave, above sordid things like money and greed and luxury.   And the question is, why did Plutarch - writing 500 years after Sparta was dead and gone - write so admiringly of a society that was totally dedicated to war AND based on one of the most horrifyingly brutal slave-owning regimes in a world that has known some pretty bad ones? Good question.  Well, one answer might be that he was writing during the reign of the Emperor Trajan, which saw the greatest military expansion of the Roman Empire:

File:Roman Empire Trajan 117AD.png
The Roman Empire under Trajan - most of the known world of the day
An ideal time to promote military societies, wouldn't you say?  And slavery (Rome was 50% slaves under Trajan; at its height, Sparta was 90% slaves).  But, since all that military conquest was flooding Rome with goods and citizens were wallowing in excess luxury, let's go back to the good old days, when men were men and fought simply for the honor of it, and the greater good of their polis.


File:Richard III earliest surviving portrait.jpg
Earliest known
portrait of Richard III
File:King Henry VII.jpg
Henry VII
Going back to that early pamphlet on Richard III - rumored to be Thomas More's - it was written specifically to blacken Richard III irredeemably, and to make everyone absolutely ecstatic that Henry VII and the Tudors had come in.  It was a political document, and needed, because Henry Tudor had no legitimate claim to the throne.  He was the grandson of a Welsh bowman, Owen Tudor, who (perhaps) married the French widow of Henry V, Catherine of Valois.  No royal blood there, at least, not English royal blood.  His mother, Margaret Beaufort was the descendant of the House of Beaufort, who were all the descendants of John of Gaunt (son of Edward III) by his mistress Katherine Swynford (the steamy details were the scandal of Europe for 25 years, until he - amazingly - finally married her).  In other words, he had damned little English blood in him, and most of it was illegitimate.  There were still legitimate Plantagenets and Yorks around who had much better claims to the throne.  So when Henry VII finally won the throne of England at the Battle of Bosworth Field, he immediately married his 3rd cousin, Elizabeth of York, got her pregnant as quickly as possible, and declared himself king as of the day BEFORE the battle, making everyone who fought him traitors, and eminently executable.  And he had his court historians - Polydore Vergil, Thomas More, and John Rous - write histories of England that made Richard III, killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field, to be the most evil, implacable king who ever lived. Maybe he was.  But then again, maybe he wasn't.

Yeah, like this is serious history
And so back we go to the Tudor era, which keeps getting rewritten. For many years, Elizabeth I was all the rage - or Mary Queen of Scots (who I consider one of the stupidest women in history).  And most of the popular stuff - HBO's "The Tudors", and many novels - are all centered around Henry VIII and his enormous appetite for women, which gives everyone a chance to show what they can do with codpieces, tight bodices and hoisted skirts.  But the serious stuff today is all on the men of Henry VIII's reign - parsing and reparsing Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell, Cardinal Wolsey.  I am not sure why.  Is it that Cromwell was a blacksmith's son made prime minister, the American Dream writ large on an English stage, minus the execution at the end?  Is it that we all want to be Thomas More, integrity and sagacity combined?  Or that we're tired of saints, and want to hear about the common man?  Or we're sick of religious zealots, and want to hear how to stop them?

NOTE: My next blog is New Year's Day, and I will be doing a review of our own Janice Law's new novel, "The Prisoner of the Riviera".  I started it last night and I can tell you this much: - it's really, really good…

18 December 2013

Five Red Herrings, part six

by Rob Lopresti

1. Get Shorty.  This is probably a good time to remind any of you who read or write  short mystery fiction to consider joining the Short Mystery Fiction Society.  No cost and you will get daily emails on subjects related to guess-what.  More importantly, if you sign up by December 31 you are eligible to vote for the Derringer Award.  And if you wish you can get propose two stories which will then be considered by the Derringer judges in selecting nominees.

2. Not just a good idea. I don't think I have mentioned Garrow's Law on this blog.  It is a terrific TV show from Britain and apparently you can watch it for free on YouTube. William Garrow was a genuine barrister in the eighteenth century and the shows are based on his cases (and sometimes even on the actual court transcripts).  Garrow was one of those wild-eye radicals, pushing for concepts like "innocent until proven guilty. I get annoyed when the shows spend more time on Garrow's personal life, but they are all worth watching.




3.  Not while you are eating.  Gwen Pearson is a forensic entomologist, which means she studies insects to solve crimes.  If you aren't squeamish you can read about her job in a fascinating post called When crime scene evidence crawls away.



4.  Let your little light shine.   Lantern is an utterly cool free site and I have already used it to research a short story.  It consists of almost a million pages from books and magazines about the entertainment industry (ads included!).  It is co-produced by the Media History Digital Library and the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Communication Arts.


So, what's in here?

• Many mentions of Mark Twain. The earliest I found is from 1903 in which he solemnly agrees to give his skull to science. If he is still using it when the note comes due, he assures the reporter, he will pay rent.

• 2700 references to Sherlock Holmes, starting with William Gillette on stage.

• In 1931, we are informed that "ELLERY QUEEN, whose detective-mystery novels are all the vogue, is the pen-name of one of the industry's ad men…"

• And here is a photo of Bebe Daniels showing off the clothes she wore in her starring role in THE MALTESE FALCON. (1931)

5. Arkansas Unraveller.   And if you didn't read it last month, here is a handy legal tip: When you are on the phone to a hit man, do not accidentally butt-dial your potential victim.



Jolly, safe Christmas and New Year's to all!

17 December 2013

Pastiche or Parody?

by Terence Faherty

First, a little shameless self-promotion.  The new issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, the February number, starts with one story of mine and ends with another, which I consider a career highlight, right up there with being published in Queen for the first time in 1999.  In between those bookend stories, the February issue contains six other tales, including a great one by SleuthSayers alumnus David Dean, "Murder Town."  My contributions are two Sherlock Holmes parodies:  "The Red-Headed League" and "A Case of Identity."  These stories are follow-ups to "A Scandal in Bohemia," which Queen ran last year.  It was my first Holmes parody.

Or do I mean pastiche?  That's the question that occupies me today:  Am I writing parody or pastiche?  Ellery Queen straddles the fence, referring to my stories as parodies here and pastiches there.  Could they be both?  Could parody be a form of pastiche?  That seems reasonable to me, but not to Wikipedia, the all knowing.  It defines pastiche as a "work of visual art, literature, or music that imitates the style or character of the work of one or more other artists.  Unlike parody, pastiche celebrates, rather than mocks, the work it imitates." 


Mr. Wodehouse and cigar
That last bit seems a little harsh to me.  Surely every parody isn't a mocking one.  Some, at least, could be thought of as affectionate.  The Holmes parodies written by P.G. Wodehouse, the great English humorist, fall into that category, I think.  Wodehouse loved the detective fiction of his day, but he was aware of its shortcomings, especially the stories of the "Great Detective" school, which includes the Holmes tales.  I quoted one of Wodehouse's insights on the dedication page of my first short story collection, The Confessions of Owen Keane:  "A detective is only human.  The less of a detective, the more human he is." 

Back to my own Holmes pastiches/parodies.  I refer to this series of stories in my journal and my filing system as The Notebooks of Dr. John H. Watson.  The conceit is simple enough.  Recently unearthed notebooks have been found to contain first drafts of Watson's immortal Sherlock Holmes stories.  (Yes, I know Sir Arthur Conan Doyle actually wrote the stories, but Doyle gave the credit to Watson, so I do too.)  And while a given first draft bears a certain resemblance to the famous story of the same name (which I'll refer to as "the Strand version"), each is really quite different.  Holmes is more of a blue-collar, working detective with blue-collar tastes (principally a taste for beer) in Watson's first drafts, and the cases he undertakes are a little more "down-market" as well.  And the solutions are always different.

When I write one of these, I first reread the Strand version looking for a "back door," an alternative way into the story for purposes of reimagining its basic events.  Sometimes the back door is an alternative solution, as it was for the two parodies Queen published this year.  Sometimes it's a famous "problem" with the story, something about it that's bugged generations of Sherlockian scholars.  An example might be the fabulous coronet that a distinguished personage (the Prince of Wales?) pawns in "The Beryl Coronet," a piece of public property that he has no right to pawn.  Resolving that problem can suggest an entirely new take on the tale.  Sometimes the back door is simply an ambivalent title, as in the case of "A Scandal in Bohemia."  Since "Bohemia" can refer to both a geographical region (as it does in the Strand version) and a lifestyle, simply switching the meaning can suggest an entirely different course of events.

The fun for me is trying to make these read as though they might actually be first drafts by including items that Watson can adapt for his final versions, like the plumber's smoke rocket that creates havoc in my "Scandal in Bohemia" and clearly inspires the smoke rocket device that works so well in Watson's "Scandal."  I also enjoy putting in allusions that I hope  Sherlockians will spot and enjoy.  My source for these is often Leslie S. Klinger's wonderful The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes.  In his notes for the "The Red-headed League," for example, he tells us that Holmes and Watson's trip on the underground in that story is the only one mentioned in the entire canon.  I explain that in passing (claustrophobia).

Speaking of allusions, I also use a few turns of phrase familiar to lovers of the works of the aforementioned Mr. Wodehouse, like Holmes "getting outside of three pints of bitter (beer) in record time."   These stories are meant to be funny, so I strive for a Wodehousian tone throughout.  I don't think P.G. would mind, and I like to think Sir Arthur wouldn't either.  Because my parodies, defined in Faherty's Collegiate Dictionary as a time-honored subset of pastiche, are nothing if not affectionate.   

16 December 2013

I, A, B, II, A, (1) (2) (a),(b) B

by Fran Rizer


If you've heard this before, and some of you have, now's the time to go for another cup of coffee. Please come back with it because before this ends I'm going to tell you how and why I used an outline for the first time when writing a book.

Last year, my grandson's language arts teacher told the class, "All writers plan their works with graphic organizers or outlines."

Aeden's hand shot up and he responded, "Not all of them."

"Yes, real writers do."

"But my G-Mama doesn't."

To shorten this story, the class wound up Googling me to satisfy the teacher that Aeden's grandmother really does write professionally.  
Grandson is now
a teenager.

Aeden insisted that I don't use organizers and outlines, but the teacher still made the students all use the graphic organizer sheet she'd printed.

My classroom days are over, and I agree some of the forms used in classes no doubt help develop better student writers.  Some of them address plot; some, characterization; some, setting; some, literary devices; some, other topics ad nauseam.  



Frequently the forms are cute and most kids like cute much better than the old outline form with its capital letters, lower case letters, Roman and Arabic numerals that was used when I was in elementary school. 

In my personal opinion, a lot of what's being used is too restrictive, even for students. Aeden's accelerated LA instructor this year sometimes uses forms requiring the writers to use a metaphor in the first paragraph, onomatopoeia in the second, direct quotations in the third, and on and on and on.

So where am I headed with all this?  I haven't used an outline or, heaven forbid, a mimeographed graphic organizer sheet since I was a kid... until this year!


I started the first Callie book with a nursery rhyme, stuck a casket in it, and produced a title.  (A Tisket, a Tasket, A FANCY STOLEN CASKET)  I then thought of an ending. I wanted to have the protagonist wind up locked in a casket, and I actually wrote the climatic chapter first.  After that, it was easy to start from the beginning and write until I reached the ending.

That pattern worked for the next four books, but the sixth required me to actually have a plan, an outline of sorts.

This time, the idea wasn't a nursery rhyme, but a song--"The Twelve Days of Christmas."  The full title naturally was On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me A CASKET UNDER THE CHRISTMAS TREE.  I wanted to relate it to the song, so I Googled and printed out the traditional words. That led to wanting to sing it, so my sons and grandson began making up lines that fit the melody but were related to mystery or crime or the South.  I decided to use them as chapter headings.  We came up with twelve presents to use. Here they are:

Everyone knows the pattern.  It begins with the first verse:
On the first day of Christmas,
My true love gave to me,
A corpse under the Christmas tree.
The second verse is:
On the second day of Christmas,
My true love gave to me,
Two broken hearts,
And a corpse under the Christmas tree
Each additional verse adds a new present and then repeats all the previous gifts.  At the end, it goes like this:
 On the twelfth day of Christmas,
My true love gave to me
Twelve eggs a’nogging
 Eleven axes grinding,
        Ten turkeys trotting,
        Nine guns a’smoking,
        Eight collards cooking,
        Seven doggies howling,
        Six tongues a’wagging,
        Five stolen rings,
        Four falling flakes,
        Three red wreaths,
        Two broken hearts,
        And a corpse under the Christmas tree                                                     
I had an outline--not with all those letters and numbers, but a plan. I decided each chapter should be twenty to twenty-five pages to make twelve chapters add up to novel length. Later I added recipes for my friends who laugh at recipes and knitting patterns in cozies and also because my agent likes for the Callie books to run between 80,000 and 85,000 words.

Next task:  Develop an overall plot using chapters appropriate to their titles.  I confess it took some thought, but I managed it and made one-line notes for each chapter. Then I wrote A Corpse Under the Christmas Tree.  I can now say I've written a book essentially from an outline.

Currently I'm not working on a Callie, and I've reverted back to my favorite kind of writing.  I call it "falling into the page."  Stephen King describes it this way:



Until we meet again, take care of ...you!

15 December 2013

Irony

by Leigh Lundin

I recently read that students of today confuse the word ‘irony’ with ‘coincidence’:
“Angie’s parents like won the lottery last month and again this month. Like seriously, that’s so ironic.”
Following, you’ll find a defense attorney’s argument that’s all about irony. And sarcasm. But first, the story, which is too unrealistic for fiction.

Imagine a 16-year-old boy with fabulously wealthy if inattentive parents. Let’s call him Ethan. Barriers for ordinary people aren’t obstacles for the privileged, his family, the 1%ers.† For example, he began driving at age 13. And drinking.

Like any teen, Ethan’s all about fun. Last year, he wakes up in the bed of Daddy’s pickup with a naked unconscious 14-year-old girl. But Ethan’s wealthy and that little problem goes away.

Little Ethan and seven of his closest friends try to buy booze but they're carded and already partially inebriated. In a burst of alcohol-fueled genius, they shoplift two cases of beer from WalMart. After slamming 48, Ethan and friends hop in Ethan’s Ford F350 pickup, which isn’t legal for him to drive without an adult. Because such rules and 40mph zones aren’t meant for the likes of them, he drives 70.

Ethan Crouch © WFAA
Ethan Couch, perpetrator © WFAA

Boyles
Boyles, victims

victims
Jennings, Mitchel, victims
And loses control. The truck goes airborne, flips upside down. Ploughs into people, places, and things. Gives one of his friends permanent brain damage. Injures nine bystanders. Kills four more.

Police come. Ethan’s blood showed Valium and an alcohol content of 0.24%, three times the legal limit– except for a 16-year-old, there’s no such thing as a legal limit above zero.

But that’s a concern for ordinary people. Ethan’s not about to put up with their crap. He says “I’m outta here.” But investigators do their best Columbo and detain young Ethan.

Normally, Daddy would pull out his wallet, problem solved. But the prosecutor is one of the rabble who disdains special privileges and socialism for the wealthy. He assembles charges that could total twenty years if the judge throws the book at the lad.

And this is a tough, hang-em, Texas judge, Jean Boyd. Just last year she gave a 14-year-old kid ten years for felling and killing a man with a sucker punch. Not saying she didn't do the right thing, but that kid was poor and black, and she understands privilege and wealth.

From the prosecution’s standpoint, they probably think they have a slam dunk:
√   drunk on stolen booze
√   Valium on board
√   not licensed to drive
√   70mph in 40mph zone
√   a dozen or more injured
√   1 with permanent brain damage
√   4 people dead
√   mouthy to police
But they don’t count on the defense’s ‘affluenza’ argument and the judge going all soft at the knees over privilege and wealth.

Affluenza? What’s that? Defense psychologist Gary Miller blames the teen's behavior on the parents, claiming they give him whatever he wants including “freedoms no young person should have.” The doctor continues, “The teen never learned to say that he's sorry. … If you hurt someone, you sent him money.”

This is where irony comes in, also where the case makes headlines. According to the defense attorney, our callow fellow is the product of ‘affluenza,’ where “his family felt their wealth bought privilege and there was no rational link between behavior and consequences.” Because of this terrible upbringing, our overly indulged lad is never punished for anything, so Ethan’s attorney argues he shouldn’t be punished now.

What?

Swayed by the heart-wrenching story of the awfulness of affluenza, Judge Jean Boyd, completely unaware of the irony of her actions, grants the defense’s motion that punishment for someone never punished would be too awful for a humane society to wreak upon our wealthy youth of today.

For a tad under a half-million dollars, poor rich little Ethan will have to spend time at a fabulous, er, tough oceanside rehab resort with swimming pools, a water slide, ‘delicate’ expensive furnishings, and gourmet dining, where one can partake of “chef-prepared meals, equine therapy, martial-arts training, yoga and nature hikes,” where one can “reflect, feel engaged and have social contact,” and where the very rich can get “the unconditional love they require.”

Their executive chef from the Laguna Professional Culinary Arts also acts as private chef to the monetarily afflicted. “Part of her talent is to construct creative menus.” Really now, Julie, those French truffles are yesterday's?

When all’s said and done, I don’t want Ethan’s life ruined. But like anyone else, he should experience consequences, which the judge seems to have missed. That’s irony.



To be clear, as an ardent entrepreneur, I’m hardly anti-wealth, but I find entitlement troubling. I simply oppose socialism for the wealthy.

14 December 2013

Coming Clean About A Semi-Private Pleasure


by Elizabeth Zelvin

Among my fellow SleuthSayers with their expertise about technology and weaponry, law enforcement and spying, I'd like to think I contribute my mite of unique individuality. So I'm going to take the conversation as far from explosives and cybersecurity and all that stuff my blog brothers in particular write about and make a confession. In our house, the stuffed animals talk to us. I could claim writer’s license—if our characters can talk to us, why shouldn’t the plush wolves and teddy bears? But my husband’s not a writer, and they talk to him too.

They tend to reveal their dark side to my husband. If you tell So no jokes about the wolves something (or someone) is venison, they’ll eat it in a heartbeat. In fact, my hubby, who can get pretty grumpy in the morning, especially before his second cup of coffee, that he channels his inner bear so effectively that our younger granddaughter is about 90 percent convinced that Grandpa is a bear. (She believes in the tooth fairy too.) With me, the animals are soothing. The bears especially understand my need for validation. They think I’m smarter than the average bear. They never think my first draft sucks. And they know the perfect cure for writer’s block: Put a salmon in it.

We know it's kind of weird. We used to try not to have these infantile, if not actually dysfunctional, relationships with the little guys. And gals—there’s Noelle the book bear, who’s quite the intellectual, and Elfie, who wears a red dress except at Xmas, when she puts her elf outfit on. But I digress. Like any other addicts, we couldn’t just say no to the animals’ demands for our attention and desire for conversation. So we said the hell with it and stopped trying to refrain. We decided that the way we channel these cuddly companions is a lot like the way fictional characters say and do what they want to, rather than what the author has planned. And there's nothing weird about that, is there?

They’re good company, our bears and wolves and moose (who hail from Minnesota and Sweden as well as the usual zoo gift shops). Their conversation is a little limited: the wolves are always talking about venison, the bears about salmon and honey and berries. The moose go wild over green carpet or anything that resembles moss. But they’re fun, and they’re extremely plausible. I, for one, believe every word they say.

So here’s how the animals got me in trouble. It happened at Bouchercon in 2009, right after my second novel, Death Will Help You Leave Him, came out. Our rule is that my husband reads my fiction when, and only when, it's published, preferably as soon as it's released. When I left for Indianapolis, I left my husband at home in New York with strict instructions to read the book. Two nights later, my cell phone rang in my hotel room at the Hyatt. It was my hubby, and he was laughing so hard that it took me a while to understand what was cracking him up. He’d just read the passage where Bruce is talking about how he hasn’t accumulated a lot of possessions. “I’m not a moose,” Bruce says. “I don’t need moss.”


I finally made out what my husband was saying between roars of laughter.

“Moose don’t eat moss!” he said.

“They don’t?” I said. “What do you mean? The moose are always talking about eating moss.”

“It was a joke!” he said. “I can’t believe you believed me!”

What did he mean? It had nothing to do with him. I’d believed the moose. Who would know better what a moose eats?

“What do they eat?”

“Aquatic plants.”

“So where did the moose moss come from?”

“I got it from Dr. Seuss!” he said.

Since I was at Bouchercon, I got to tell this story to a lot of writers. One of them suggested the perfect comeback if any reader points out I’ve committed an error of fact regarding what moose eat. It hasn't happened yet, but it still could.

“It’s an hommage to Dr. Seuss,” I’ll say.

13 December 2013

Another Black Eye for Arizona

 By Dixon Hill






I love Arizona... 

























I love the wide-open spaces (We've still got ‘em, though they grow fewer and farther between every day!), the dusty desert terrain dotted by Saguaro (“Su – whar – ro”), Prickly Pear and Cholla (Cho – ya) cactus, the scrub plants you encounter as you work your way north, the rough rocky face of the Mogollon (“Moo - gee – on” and that middle syllable is pronounced with a hard “g” sound) Rim, even the high country with its Ponderosa and Kaibab Pines. Not to mention all the prairie dogs, squirrels and coyotes.

 The warp and woof of Arizona life is filled with Mexican, American Indian and Spanish influences. They mold our architecture, our language, even the way we get our water and eat our meals.

 When I was a kid, we found an old wagon wheel out in the middle of nowhere, while on a picnic. Stuff like that dotted the empty desert back then, including rare rotting wagons, or long-abandoned and unmapped Indian ruins that I ran across at times. Somebody had probably lost that wagon wheel while crossing the desert back in the 18-who-knows-when, heading for a better life in who-knows-where. We loaded it in the trunk and my mom had my dad lean it against a tree in our backyard. When our pool was put in, that wagon wheel got cemented—center stage—into the planter that jutted abruptly from the pool’s back wall.
 Today, only the rusted rim remains.

Soutwestern Black Eye 

These days, Arizona gets a bad rap from a lot of folks. Sometimes because it’s deserved. Other times, because of misunderstandings or imbalanced reporting. 

This past July I learned that two guys in Paradise Valley have evidently come up with a way to give Arizona another black eye. It looks like they’re scamming money off people across the nation, using information they find in official law enforcement sex offender data lists.

 For those who don’t know, Paradise Valley is a suburb of the Phoenix Metro area. PV as it’s commonly known, was planned as a bedroom community for upper-income families. Community planners stipulated, for instance, that a built-in swimming pool had to sit at least twenty-one feet from the property line. They did this to encourage the construction of expensive houses on large lots. And, it worked. They also made it illegal to set up a business—even a gas station—except in very limited areas.

 This doesn't seem to have kept two guys from running an internet business out their house, however. According to an Arizona Republic article by Robert Anglen:

 A network of Arizona-based Internet companies is mining data from sex-offender sites maintained by law-enforcement agencies and using it to demand money and harass those who complain or refuse to pay.

The websites in question are evidently run by two men who have both been convicted on fraud charges in the past. They obtain their information from sex offender data lists published by law enforcement agencies, however their site is not associated with any state or federal agency or law enforcement branch.

 Now, I can hear some of you thinking, “They’re convicted sex offenders; they probably deserve it!” But, the people being scammed aren’t necessarily sex offenders at all. According to the article:

 Among the hundreds of thousands of names that appear, the websites include names and addresses of people who never have been arrested or convicted of a sex crime.

The Internet-savvy operators … have prominently profiled specific individuals, published their home and e-mail addresses, posted photographs of their relatives and copied their Facebook friends onto the offender websites.

“Enjoy the exposure you have created for yourself,” operators said in an e-mail to an offender last year. “Unfortunately you took (your) family with you.”

In Virginia, a man last year stumbled onto (the) profile of his recently deceased brother-in-law. He said he contacted the website in an effort to spare his sister and her two young daughters from learning about the 18-year-old conviction. But when he said he balked at paying, the websites posted his name and e-mail. They also posted his sister’s address, her name and the names of her children, in-laws and other relatives.

 Not enough to convince you? How about this one: A Louisiana schoolteacher, whose only “crime” was buying a house once owned by a sex offender (whose name had been removed from all official registries before she bought the house), found herself caught up in the websites’ snare. “Even after being notified that the offender no longer lived in the house and being paid to remove the profile,” the Republic article states, “(the websites) continued publishing the woman’s address as if the sex offender still resided there.”

That’s right: she’s a teacher. She had no connection to the sex offender in question, except that she happened to buy a house he once lived in. Fearing the website might convince people she was associated with a convicted sex offender—something that could ruin her career—she paid them to remove her address from the website. But, they kept it up anyway. And, the people running these websites are charging people between $79 and $499 to have their names removed.

 Is This Legal? 

The Arizona Department of Public Safety runs an official state registry at azsexoffender.org. Their site states: “misuse of this information may result in criminal prosecution.” Surely this is the case with other agency’s registries, also. 

Yet, though people claim to have complained to attorneys general not only in Arizona, but also in Washington, Virginia, Montana and Louisiana, no law enforcement agencies seem to have taken any action.

Hasn't Anybody Called the Cops? 

That’s what I wondered, and according to the Republic article:

Complaints about … the … websites have been filed with local, state and federal law-enforcement agencies for almost a year. Offenders, their relatives and others who say they have been targeted by the websites say officials won’t act. They say agencies take reports, then decline to open investigations or refer cases elsewhere.

Complaints have been submitted with the FBI, the Federal Trade Commission and the Internet Crime Complaint Center, which works with the FBI to refer Internet criminal cases to various agencies.

One offender said federal prosecutors in Virginia told him they would not open a case.

Neither the FBI nor the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Virginia would comment. FBI officials in Arizona also declined comment.

Complaints have also been submitted with attorneys general in at least five states, including Arizona.

 One convicted sex offender was quoted as saying: “They don’t take action because of who we are: sex offenders. But we deserve equal protection under the law.”

 Maybe that statement doesn't resonate with you. But, no matter how little pity you feel for sex offenders (and, frankly, I find it hard to pity them), surely their families and friends—or people who buy houses from them!—deserve to be protected from these websites.

See you in two weeks,
--Dixon

12 December 2013

Good Character / Bad Character

by Janice Law

I’ve been reading Claire Tomalin’s biography of Charles Dickens, and I was once again struck by his emotional reaction to his characters, especially to Little Nell of The Old Curiosity Shop, a typical Victorian saintly child, whose precarious situation and dodgy health provoked transatlantic anxieties. Folks actually met British steamers at the New York docks to get the latest news of this Dickens’ heroine.

Few of us will create such emotional havoc in our readers and today the internet spills the beans via blogs or Twitter. But it got me thinking about writers’ relationships with characters, in particular, with the way that some characters just write like a dream while others resist their translation to print and even when successful represent a long, hard slog.

I can hear the amateur psychologists in the background muttering about covert self portraits and sub-conscious impulses. Frankly, I hope that’s not true, because the characters that I’ve had the most trouble with are the virtuous ones, while certain weird and wicked people just jumped off the page.

Of course, evil is stock in trade for the mystery writer. But even slightly off that homicidal reservation I’ve found that the wicked make good copy. Years ago, I wrote All the King’s Ladies, an historical novel set at the court of Louis XIV and based on the Affair of the Poisons. Two particularly heinous characters, the Abbe LeSage, a defrocked priest, Black Mass celebrant, and pedophile, and Madame Voisin, abortionist, vendor of love potions, and poisoner were among the easiest characters I’ve ever written.

I might have trouble with the King, with his various ambitious ladies, or with the celebrated Police Commissioner De La Reynie but never with LeSage or Voisin, who greeted me each morning with snappy dialogue and wholly unrepentant attitudes. Given their habits, I really think I would have found them unbearable if they hadn’t also possessed a sort of gleeful energy, which makes me think that robust vitality trumps any number of other virtues – at least on the page.

Short mystery stories are the natural habitat of such types. The short story needs punch and compression, and characters need to be sharply drawn if they are to make an impact in the handful of pages allotted to them. For this reason, I have always favored either first person narratives or single point of view for the form.

But even in mysteries, evil needs to be the seasoning, not the main dish. In All the King’s Ladies, LeSage and La Voisin were minor characters, however vital, and I only occasionally, as in The Writing Workshop about a writer’s murderous search for a sympathetic editor, write a story entirely from the point of view of a cold-blooded perpetrator.

More usually, the narrator is either an observer who only gradually realizes that his or her friend or acquaintance is up to no good or else is drawn into crime by circumstances only partly beyond control. And here, I think, personal tastes and interests do sometimes surface. I found the would-be literary writer who moonlights in fantasy novels in The Ghost Writer sympathetic because he had, like most writers, little rituals to help him get into the writing mode.

The drug dealer’s girlfriend in Star of the Silver Screen lived a totally different sort of life from mine, but she shared my taste for old movies and found a surprising hiding place within movie fantasies. On the other hand, I didn’t like the heroine of The Summer of the Strangler, though I was sympathetic to her role as editor for her philandering husband. Still, she wrote very nicely, in part because she lived in the suburban Connecticut town were I spent a quarter of a century.
So what is my relationship with my characters? I don’t love them like Dickens, and I’ve only become fond enough of a couple to keep writing about them. Anna Peters ran to nine novels, and Madame Selina and her assistant Nip Tompkins look set for several more outings in the short story markets.

As for my relations with the rest, they are curious. Some writers create elaborate backstories for their characters and can tell you their genealogies and private histories. Not me. Maybe it’s an exaggerated respect for the privacy of imaginary beings, but I only know what they choose to reveal. Characters start talking to me and telling me things and I write them down. That’s about it.
Sometimes they tell me a lot and they wind up in a novel. Other times their visits are brief and end in fatality; they’re destined for short stories. To me, a good character has a distinctive voice, insinuating ideas, and mild obsession. Plus, a taste for gossiping – with me.

11 December 2013

The Revolt of The Oyster

by David Edgerley Gates

Don Marquis, who died seventy years ago, is probably best known for ARCHY AND MEHITABEL, but he published some thirty-five books, and his daily newspaper columns were widely read. THE REVOLT OF THE OYSTER came out in 1922, a collection of what are best described as Shaggy Dog stories (some of them in fact told from the dog's POV).

This post, though, isn't really about Don Marquis, that's just a loose hook. I first ran across THE REVOLT OF THE OYSTER in my grandmother Ada's summer house on Salters Point, near New Bedford, on Buzzards Bay. Anybody who's ever rented a vacation cottage remembers that they're often furnished with old Agatha Christie paperbacks, say, or Louis L'Amours, or the Hardy Boys, and I remember going down every year to Ada's house, until I was maybe fourteen or fifteen, and every year I'd go straight to the bookshelf and take out the Don Marquis again. I never took it home with me. I always left it there for the next summer, a talisman, or a touchstone, if you will. I associated the book with that particular place, the smell of the ocean, the light on the water, the house itself, with its porches overlooking the seawall, my grandmother's sister, my Aunt Al, sitting in her room by the windows, playing her endless games of solitaire.

Hancock Pt. library
My other grandmother, my mother's mom, had a cottage up in Maine, at a place called Hancock Point, across from Mt. Desert Island. The way it seems to me now, although I may be misremembering those long-ago summers, is that we'd spend July at Salters, and August in Hancock. Hancock had a little seasonal library, most of the books out-of-date, on loan or donated, and there was a children's wing on one side, a great place to spend a rainy day. The book I checked out every year was THE BEARS' FAMOUS INVASION OF SICILY, and again, I connected it particularly to Hancock Point. I never thought to read it, or even try to find it, anywhere else. It was that physically specific.

Memory is of course inexact, and it shifts under our
feet. Also, we invest old favorites with our own imagination. Was the BEARS book really any good? I really only remember the drawings, which were wonderfully evocative. You could probably say the same thing about the Babar stories---if you look at them from a grown-up perspective, are they an apology for French colonialism? I'd rather no project this kind of moral re-reading into them. It stifles delight. And we were innocent of politics, then. We were kids, after all, and maybe less demanding. We satisfied ourselves by entering an unfamiliar world, one that we inhabited, and populated, that became more familiar over time. If, in fact, not the books, per se, that sense of wonder we recall, that first encounter. It brings back to me the smell of the piney woods, or the salty rocks, or a fire in the fireplace, on a stormy night. My childhood, in a word, a time and a place that no longer exists.

This isn't loss, or regret. It's more a kind of conjuring trick, an act of reimagination. We're never going to be nine years old again, but we can visit, and when I read THE REVOLT OF THE OYSTER, it becomes, for me, a trip to Ada's house by the shore and the world of summers gone, a game of solitaire, shuffling the cards.

10 December 2013

Nothing Wasted

by Janice Law

Thanks to Dale Andrews and Terence Faherty, who have kindly given up space so I can announce the publication today, Dec 10, of Prisoner of the Riviera, the second volume of my mystery trilogy featuring that campy bon vivant and artistic genius, Francis Bacon.

Surprisingly, since I rarely plan anything in fiction, I knew from the start that I wanted to do three novels with this character. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the trilogy involved me in the same sort of plot problems that individual novels have caused. Namely, I had a wonderful idea for the beginning: a mystery set against the London Blitz– the Blackouts, sudden death from the sky, spectacular, if dangerous, light effects, and the disorientations of a totally disrupted urban geography. Who could ask for a better setting?

And then Bacon was a character that I found irresistible if rather foreign to my own experience. He was irrepressible and pleasure loving, but hard working, too. And he lived with his old nanny, the detail that convinced me to use him in fiction.

I also had a pretty good idea about the third novel. Painful experience has taught me that it is folly to embark on a project without some idea of the ending. It’s good, if not essential, to know who the killer is, but I find I absolutely need some idea of how the concluding events are going to go down. And I did know, because, just on the cusp of real success, Bacon embarked on his great erotic passion with a dangerous ex-RAF pilot. In Tangiers, no less, the exotic height of romance. How could I go wrong with that?

The problem, as perspicacious readers will have already divined, was the dreaded middle, the getting from the brilliant idea of the opening (for who ever starts a project without the delusive conviction that this idea is really terrific?) to the clever and satisfying (we do live in hope) ending. The solution was not immediately forthcoming and volume 2 might still be just a faint literary hope if not for personal past literary history.

Over every writer’s desk, in addition to Nora Ephron’s mom’s: “Remember, dear, it’s all copy,” I would add, “Remember not every project works out” and “Nothing is wasted.” Years ago, I wrote a novel called The Countess, which borrowed some of the exploits of a real WW2 SOE agent, a Polish countess in exile. I did a lot of research. I read a lot of books. I visited the Imperial War Museum in London. I even made an attempt at beginning Polish.

But just as sometimes a piece one dashes off turns out to be very good, so sometimes one’s heart’s blood is not enough. The Countess was published to small acclaim and smaller sales and I was left with a working knowledge of the French Underground and SOE circuits, plus acquaintance with the toxic politics of Vichy and the right-wing Milice.

Years passed. Although I forgot, as I tend to do, the names of agents and the dates of significant actions, a notion of the infernal complexity of war time France remained, along with the conviction that the post-war must have been a very confusing and often dangerous place.

When I recalled that Francis’s lover had promised him a gambling trip to France after the war, I had the ah-ha moment. The real Bacon, his lover, and his old Nan had actually gone to France. That was good. And what was better was that I could invent a whole range of people who had scores to settle and secrets to hide. What better environment for Francis, who does have a knack for smelling out trouble?

The French setting of Prisoner of the Riviera also enabled me to add one of my passions to the story, as very soon after the war, the French resumed the Tour de France, still the world’s most glamorous bike race. Handsome young men in bike shorts seemed to me to be just the ticket for a vacationing Francis Bacon, and having given him all sorts of obstacles and miseries, it seemed only fair to let him indulge in a little romance.

Finally, we had spent holidays in France, a number of them in the south, and the sights and sounds of the Riviera have lingered in my mind. With both the physical and emotional setting of the novel well in hand, it remained only for me to trust to the Muse to come up with the incidents. She complied and Prisoner of the Riviera, in which in best mystery novel fashion, the hero, having survived Fires of London goes on vacation and finds himself in the soup, was the result.

09 December 2013

Things I've Learned at Sleuth Sayers

Jan Grape
THINGS I'VE LEARNED AT SLEUTH SAYERS

by Jan Grape

I had two or three ideas tumbling around in my head for my column, however, nothing seemed to jell. I decided to peruse every one's column for this past week and "Wah-la." I decided that "transformative use" information from John M. Floyd made good sense.

As I've mentioned before, the first novel I wrote in 1980-81, was a private eye novel. Since I was a voracious reader of that genre, I noticed that no one was writing books or stories with a female P.I. At the time, I didn't know Marcia Muller had published her first Sharon McCone novel, Edwin of the Iron Shoes," in 1977. She's been called the "Mother of the female Private Eye." Marcia modestly smiles and says the second McCone book wasn't published until five years later. Sometime she admits perhaps she's the "Godmother."

To be quite accurate, Maxine O'Callaghan wrote a short story, "A Change of Clients," which debuted, Delilah West, P.I., published in AHMM in 1974. Delilah didn't make it to a book, Death Is Forever until 1980. Sara Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski appeared in Indemnity Only in January, 1982. Immediately following was Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone in "A is For Alibi," in April, 1982. So I honestly didn't steal or copy their ideas because I had began writing my book in 1980. It was just that the idea of a female P.I. was definitely in the air. A friend handed me the Grafton book sometime later in '82, saying I know you're writing a female P.I. and think you might enjoy this book. A month or so after that I saw the Muller book and bought and read it.

The other idea I had when starting my book was a transformative use taken directly from Robert B. Parker of having my P.I., Jenny Gordon, work with a tough, smart, beautiful, black woman, C.J. Gunn. I wanted to show the interaction of the two women being close friends. He had Spencer and a black male friend who was tough and often helped. My naming my character came from the idea of Mickey Spillane having his character named Mike Hammer.  The Mickey and Mike were alliterative and I felt Jenny Gordon by Jan Grape might be memorable.

I published two short stories inspired by songs from singer/songwriters. The first was "Scarlett Fever," published in Deadly Allies inspired by a Kenny Rogers song. I didn't know him  personally but knew all of his songs. The second story was "The Confession" inspired by Thomas Michael Riley, a local Hill Country songwriter and published in Murder Here, Murder There.

The only short story that inspired me was one by Bill Pronzini. I don't remember the title of it, but there was a hit and run accident in it. My story, "The Man In The Red Flannel Suit" was published in Santa Clues, and has a significant hit and run scene.

Fran's definition of cozyesque is fantastic. My friend, Susan Rogers Cooper, writes what she calls, "grisly cozies." They are tougher than cozy but not hard-boiled. A few years ago when I owned the bookstore we called books either soft-boiled, medium-boiled, or hard-boiled.

When I was trying to get my Austin policewoman book sold, Ed Gorman of Tekno Books was packaging books for Five Star. At that time, the editor there was buying cozy mysteries only. Ed asked if I had a book for them to look at. I said, not really. Only thing I have is my policewoman book. He said, "Well, can you cozy it up a little?" I said, "I don't know, but I'll try." That wasn't working too well. As we all know, a bunch of police officers and most bad guys use rough language. I was trying to take out the bad language and checking for how much sex I could gloss over. I was about half-way through when Ed called back. "Our editor has moved up and she's now open to any genre of mystery. Thank goodness, I had a copy that certainly wasn't cozy and sent it to him. They liked it and Austin City Blue found a home.

None of my three novels are the Great American Novel, Eve Fisher, but I didn't try to write one either. I just wrote books that I liked and that I hoped others would like.

As far as researching, Dale Andrews, for the policewoman series, I actually took 10 weeks of classes of Citizen's Police Academy training in 1991. It was a program set up to help neighborhood watch folks learn all about the different aspects of the Austin Police Department. The accepted me because they knew I was a published writer of short stories. We had department heads or second in command come by and talk about SWAT, Fraud and Bunko Squad, Robbery Homicide, Firearms, Fingerprints, Ballistics, Medical Examiners, etc.

One night we all used the laser light, video training program called FATS. You watched a video on a huge screen and you held a laser gun. The scene would play out on the screen and you had to decide whether to "shoot or not shoot." It made you understand how few seconds an officer has to make a decision and to do the right thing. I did okay but I did "shoot" a bad guy in the behind. He was beating up a cop, then suddenly jumped up and ran away. My brain said to shoot and by the time I made the decision he had jumped up and turned to leave. We also did a "ride along" for a full shift with an officer in a squad car. That was fascinating and you soon realized every call could be a potential bad one. Dispatch said, "Check out a suspicious vehicle." At such and such address. We got there and it was a Winnebago vehicle, all dark. The officer didn't know if someone was inside or was gone. He wouldn't let me get out of the car. Turned out it was vacant.

For interesting searches nowadays I sometimes do online on my telephone, is for song lyrics. Not for
writing but for friends and for fun.

This concludes my article, and Leigh, you'll have to check this for commas. I'm sure I have too many. But I think I did okay with quote marks and such.

08 December 2013

Professional Tips: Speech! Speech!

by Leigh Lundin

I’ve been tutoring new writers in the basics. Realistic dialogue is difficult enough, not to mention outside the purview of my lessons, but I’m amazed how many writers haven’t mastered the ‘mechanics’, the essential punctuation required to make dialogue readable.

Punctilious Punctuation

The most obvious indicators of dialogue are the quotation marks that wrap the spoken words themselves. That seems simple enough, but situations arise that flummox many students, including the simplest declarative statement plus a speech tag identifying who spoke. It’s not uncommon to see:
“Beware the Jabberwock, my son.” he said.
The fullstop (period) confuses writers when adding a speech tag naming the speaker. If the phrase ended with a question mark or exclamation mark, then all would be well:
“And has thou slain the Jabberwock?” he said.
Recognizing the end of a declarative sentence, many students want to simply add He said or he said, rather than the correct form, a comma:
“Beware the Jabberwock, my son,” he said.
Is this the party to whom I am speaking?

Roughly half of students omit commas setting off the person being addressed. This can confuse the reader and can change the meaning of the sentence:
“Beware the Jabberwock my son.”
Is the speaker implying he fathered the Jabberwocky? Consider:
“Would you like to eat Mary?”
This works only if Mary is the victim, not the listener. What about the following? Is the speaker referring to a former king?
“Edward I swam the English Channel.”
Always set off the person addressed with commas:
“Yes, sir, I will.”
Beyond a Single Paragraph

What happens when a speaker’s dialogue breaks into uninterrupted paragraphs? The correct response is to place a quotation mark at the beginning of each paragraph, but place a closing quotation mark only after the final sentence of the last paragraph.
“Has thou slain the Jabberwock?
“Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
“O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
Momentarily stepping outside the realm of dialogue, we often wish to enclose words or phrases within quote marks as I did in the first paragraph above. When a comma or period is required, many authors simply write in this form, the ‘always inside’ rule:
(open quote) word/phrase (comma/fullstop)(close quote)
Other writers such as James Lincoln Warren argue that where you put the terminating punctuation depends on context and meaning, and I agree. (JLW also writes convincingly in support of the ‘Oxford comma’ indicating that its exclusion can alter the meaning of a list.)

The Stratemeyer Stain

“Everything I learned about writing, I learned from Edward Stratemeyer,” or so it seems from new writers some days.

Edward Stratemeyer has a lot to answer for. From the late 1800s through the first half of the twentieth century, the Stratemeyer Syndicate dominated the field of youth literature with more than 100 series and 1300 titles, books you’ve probably read: Nancy Drew (1930), The Hardy Boys (1927), Tom Swift (1910), The Bobbsey Twins (1904), The Rover Boys (1899), etc.

While you can find varied speech tags in Dickens and Doyle, Stratemeyer grew notorious for using any verb other than ‘said’. To wit:
Tom acquiesced, added, admitted, advanced, advised, affirmed, articulated, asserted, boasted, bragged, confirmed, demanded, demurred, frowned, grinned, gurgled, injected, murmured, queried, responded, shouted, smiled, snapped, snorted, whimpered, whined, whispered, “Stop the madness!”
When asked why writers shouldn’t use a full, glorious array of verbs, teachers find themselves unarmed. They say “You can’t frown words, you can’t smile an answer,” and hurriedly move on to the next topic.

Intrusion Alert

But there’s a better reason. Many editors and authors consider anything other than ‘said’ and perhaps ‘asked’ to be author intrusion. Instead of letting the words speak for themselves, the author inserts himself into the story to tell the reader how to interpret it. Rob Lopresti brilliantly identifies these as superfluous 'stage directions'. Many professional writers suggest readers don't 'hear' the verb 'said', that it's invisible to the eye and ear.

So it happens many students come prepared with thesauri-enhanced speech tags and they can’t believe it when instructed to slash them from their epics. “This can’t be right to replace our colorful, masterful, steroidal verbs with dull grey ‘said’?

More than one will decline, arguing “It’s just my style. I can’t change my style.” Fair enough, but don’t be surprised if your style might not be your publisher’s.

Low Marks

Here’s a little puzzle from ESLCarissa passed on from Post Secret. Jot your solution in the comments section!

I don't know how to punctuate.